By Jeff S. Smith
Although most people would quickly designate December 25 as the obvious date of the birth of Christ, both historical and biblical records are completely silent on the issue. Neither human recording nor divine revelation offer us much clue beyond an approximate year.
There is some evidence that Jesus might have been born instead in late summer or early autumn - imagine how that would change the holiday! John's father, Zechariah, was a temple priest, serving in the course of Abijah, the eighth in rotation (Luke 1:5-17; see also First Chronicles 24:10). The Talmud (a collection of Jewish laws and commentaries) tells us that the first course performed its duties in the first week of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (late March or early April). As each course was one week, Elizabeth conceived in the eighth week of the Hebrew year (our late June or early July) and her sixth month would have been in December, when Gabriel initially brought good news to Mary. Nine months of gestation could put the birth of Jesus sometime in September or early October.
The census described by Luke (2:1-12) makes December an unlikely timeframe for Christ's birth, however, because winter weather would make the necessary travel impractical and unpopular. Instead, a census would generally occur just after the harvest season in early autumn, so that the vital work in the fields would be finished, but the roads would still be passable.
Moreover, the presence of shepherds in the fields at night makes winter an unlikely period for Christ's birth as well. The climate in Israel has not changed much in the last two millennia and currently the average December temperature in Bethlehem is forty-four degrees Fahrenheit, but dips well below freezing at night when snow is also possible. Luke 2:8 tells us, however, that shepherds were living in the fields at the time Jesus was born; a common practice of shepherds was keeping their flocks in the field from April to October, but in the cold and rainy winter months they took their flocks back home and sheltered them. Adam Clarke suggested this was sufficient evidence to abandon the notion that Jesus was born in December or any later than September (Clarke's Commentary, note on Luke 2:8).
Even the year of Christ's birth is subject more to conjecture than precise recording. We know from the Bible that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still living; he evidently died in the spring of 4 B.C. (see Matthew 2:1-16). Because ancient Israelites counted a person's age from conception, the implication is that Jesus was already about a year old before Herod died in 4 B.C. This date for the birth of Christ also fits with the fact that he began his ministry when he was about thirty years old, which would have been in the mid-20s A.D. (see Luke 3:23, John 2:20).